Political Forum with Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, and Democrat Janet Diaz

FILE: Pennsylvania State Senator Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, serving the 13th District, speaks during a political forum livestream with Democratic challenger Lancaster City Council Woman Janet Diaz, in the LNP office at 101NQ in Lancaster Thursday Oct. 15, 2020.

Local school boards would lose their exclusive power to approve or reject charter school applications under a Pennsylvania Senate bill that cleared its first legislative hurdle Monday.

Introduced by Sen. Scott Martin, the Lancaster County lawmaker who chairs the Senate Education Committee, the proposal is opposed by Gov. Tom Wolf and teachers groups who want to ensure public education dollars stay within the public school system.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree charter school reform is crucial -- though the groups diverge ideologically on the details. Republicans, generally, want to boost “school choice” by making it easier for families to send their children to private schools, whether they are charters or religiously affiliated schools. Wolf, meanwhile, campaigned on a promise to hold charter schools accountable to taxpayers. He was in Lancaster last week to push his proposals to place a per-student tuition cap on charter schools and limit cyber school enrollment until their quality improves.

Martin’s bill, Senate Bill 1, addresses some of the areas where Democrats and Republicans agree. Charter schools would no longer be able to advertise themselves as “cost-free” or “free,” as they often do in marketing themselves now. Additionally, it would add transparency and accountability measures for charters to follow, as well as allow all secondary schools to offer dual-enrollment programs with colleges.

But Democrats are unlikely to support a provision to create a state commission that would consider charter school applications, instead of leaving it up to local school boards to decide. Members of the proposed Public Charter School Commission would be appointed by the governor and legislature, with the GOP majority in the House and Senate appointing 4 of the 7 seats and the governor appointing just one (and the Democratic legislative leaders appointing one each). Applications for new charter schools could bypass local school boards and be submitted directly to the new commission. 

This is a necessary mechanism, Martin said, because the existing Charter Appeals Board  became “functionally non-existent” after Gov. Wolf fired all but one of its members, WHYY reported last month.

Martin’s bill also seeks to make more money available to schools by doubling scholarships currently funded by two state tax credit programs -- the education improvement tax credit and the opportunity scholarship tax credit. These credits allow corporations or businesses to redirect a portion of their taxes to religious schools, private schools, public school foundations and other learning institutions.

Wolf opposes the legislation as it is currently written, his spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said in an email.

“Various components of this bill make this bill a non-starter,” Kensinger said. “One example is the creation of another unelected, unaccountable form of Harrisburg bureaucracy appointed by political insiders that will only result in increased costs to local school districts that will be paid for by increasing property taxes for Pennsylvanians.”

The proposal passed the Senate education committee Monday by a 6-5 vote. Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Mount Joy, sits on the committee alongside Martin and supported the bill.

Martin said during Monday’s meeting that he is willing to negotiate with the House and the governor to “develop a final product that is not an ideological statement piece, but something that can be enacted into law and make a real difference in the lives of Pennsylvania students and families.”

On increasing the number of scholarships available to charter students, Martin said many students go without because the current tax credit can’t support the demand, he added.

“These numbers represent tens of thousands of students that are, for one reason or another,  looking for a better path and they’re being turned away,” Martin said. “The demand is there and we have to act to meet it.”

Martin introduced his bill Friday, and the committee’s action on it Monday shows it’s viewed as a top priority by the Senate Republican majority. A spokesperson for Majority Leader Kim Ward said it is being reviewed by members and will likely not be considered by the full Senate this week.

Monday’s committee vote was criticized by the state’s largest teachers union.

Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said in a statement that the proposal to increase tax credits would amount to the “largest transfer of taxpayer funds out of public school’s in Pennsylvania’s history,” resulting in “just about the worst attack on public education we’ve ever seen.”

The tax credits do not directly remove money from school district budgets. Instead, the state lets businesses redirect a portion of their tax payments to a school program of their choice. While it benefits some schools, public or private, it reduces the amount paid into the general fund, from which the state's portion of public school funding is drawn.

Askey, however, pointed to the amount local school districts pay charters when a student opts to attend that school over a regular public school. 

In 2019-20, traditional public schools had to pay charter schools nearly $2.2 billion,” Askey added. “Charter school costs are rapidly becoming one of the largest single expenses for public schools. That’s why decisions about approving charter schools need to be made by local school boards that are responsible for safeguarding their taxpayers’ money. We need more transparency in our charter school system, not less.”

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools tweeted Monday that it supports Senate Bill 1. A spokesperson for the coalition did not respond to a request for comment.

School District of Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau said in an email that she appreciates Martin taking action on charter school reform and supports the charter school transparency measures within the proposal. Rau said the School District of Lancaster wants the state to create a “fair, predictable and equitable” charter school tuition formula, like in Wolf’s proposal.

The board of the School District of Lancaster unanimously rejected a charter school application last year submitted by Brian Ombiji, a professional soccer club founder who wanted to create a school that infused sports and education. Ombiji has said he plans to update his charter application and resubmit it to the school district this month.

“We believe local school boards know best the needs of their community,” Rau said in an email. “They should have the authority to grant charters to schools that will be funded by the local taxpayers they represent.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the types of schools the tax credits benefit. Private schools, religious schools, Pre-K programs and public school foundations all can benefit from the EITC tax credit program. Students attending a low-performing public school may be able to attend a higher-performing public school through the OSTC program.

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